Studying the Greek Gods

This post originally appeared on the Trinitas Christian School blog.

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In his book, The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly About the Arts, Leland Ryken asks a simple but provocative question: “Why do people hang paintings on walls?” There is of course the straightforward response: “because they enjoy said paintings.” But there is another level to the response worth considering, and its implications ripple out beyond the singular notion of picture hanging. Creative expressions have been how humanity thought and considered the reality around it for all recorded history. We don’t write or tell stories or sing just because we enjoy it; we also do these things because we must.

How does this fit into the Christian life? For starters, the Bible is chock full of stories, and not all them seem pristine on the surface. The Christian Scriptures affirm the idea that we are a people in need of creative expression, with complex heroes like Samson and theologically rich poetry like the Psalms. The Christian, then, engages with the artistic world every time he or she opens their Bible, and this exercise helps the believer interact with opposing worldviews as well. We read the literature of other cultures and eras, mining for gold or dropping lead lines into the water, always expecting to find something of value.

Though the Christian has much to reject in the worldview of the Ancient Greeks, there are also things worth a closer examination. Is there significance to Pandora’s perseveration of Hope that the Christian can understand? Do we weep with Helios when Phaethon is struck down due to his impudence and inexperience? Are we sometimes rattled by the idea that life is out of our control, like Achilles or Oedipus? The Greek myths are not only good stories (though they are that), for they contain in them a way of understanding the world that should and can be reckoned with by any thoughtful Christian.

As we head into Zeus’ Family Reunion at Trinitas this week, we consider the truth and beauty found in the archives of the Greek imagination. Join us as we try to explore these stories together. Perhaps there are still depths to be mined, still deep waters to be sounded. And when it is all said and done, you’ll have a new mosaic to hang on your wall.

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The Right Questions for “The Force Awakens”

This post originally appeared at the Trinitas Christian School blog.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-still-10Every quarter, our students are invited to participate in our Classic Film Society. We gather, eat popcorn, watch movies, and then spend time discussing the ways these films wrestle with the Gospel, even if they do it inadvertently. This is more than just an excuse to watch good movies, because movies are one of the primary way our culture searches for the Gospel. Directors aren’t necessarily looking to imbed the content of Christianity in their film, but they cannot escape the shape of Christianity.[1] Films made in the past demonstrate this, as do those that continue to come to a theater near you.

And this is one of the beauties of our Classic Film Society: what we do connects with current movies as well. In fact, it’s probably most helpful to understand the word classic like this: “Here is the body of work which sets the standard for all subsequent achievement.”[2] If the box office numbers are any indication, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will set the standard for years to come. So does Episode VII wrestle with the Gospel? I think it does, by dealing with specific elements of the Gospel shape found in so much of our world’s media.

For instance, the universe Star Wars inhabits is a moral one, dealing with good and evil.[3] There is a clear villain (Kylo Ren) and a clear hero (Rey). There is transformation, as Finn becomes less of a selfish character, and even risks his life to save someone else (not once, but twice). And all of this surfaces in the midst of a story that often advocates “balance.” But make no mistake, there is good and there is evil; there is light and there is dark. Even the cinematography embodies this concept, with the light being extinguished at the pivotal moment of choosing the light or the darkness.

These ideas provide excellent conversation starters. For instance, if this morality is driven by feelings, how are viewers to understand the problems that so often arise from characters pursing their feelings? A Jedi must feel the force, but must also avoid attachment. Is it because our feelings are so often wrong (Jer. 17:9)? And if feelings are to be the guide to the Force, as Obi-wan instructs Luke in Episode IV, what happens when a character feels the draw of the dark side? The questions abound, and the answers aren’t always airtight, but these are the kinds of things that Christians should think about when engaging with contemporary film. The Force Awakens should be a segue to a bigger conversation about Truth and Beauty and Goodness. Just like those we have at Classic Film Society.

[1] If you’re interested in reading more about this idea, Gavin Ortlund has a nice introduction here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/3-ways-movies-are-searching-for-the-gospel.

[2] This definition comes from J. Budziszewski, a professor of law at UT Austin (http://undergroundthomist.org/classical).

[3] I have explored this before, particularly in relation to the Lord of the Rings movies (http://humanepursuits.com/a-world-where-feelings-are-king/).

The Whistle

This is an old vignette I wrote back in 2009. I’ve cleaned up some sloppy writing in it, and thought it worth sharing.

“Do you think it’s true?” The boy’s eyes glistened. He watched as the old man worked the oak in his hands.

“Do I think what is true?” The old man moved his knife from one end of the wood to the other, the shavings drifting to the floor around his stool.

“Is it true what they say about love? Can it really change everything?”

“Where did you hear that?” The old man carved as the boy’s body twitched as his thoughts ran their course.

“I heard some of the potters talking about it. They were saying it could be like magic. Love could change everything.”

“Heh. I suppose they said something about kings leaving all their riches behind? Poor men becoming rich?” The old man raised his eyebrow, the shape of a whistle emerging amidst the aroma of the fresh wood.

“That’s what they said.” The boy paused. “Have they said this before?”

“Many times.”

“So it’s not true, then? Love isn’t magic. It isn’t what the potters said? It isn’t strong?”

The old man put his creation down on the workman’s table. He turned to see tears forming in the corners of the boy’s eyes. The old man recalled the forest when he looked into those little windows. He put his calloused hands on the boy’s shoulders and waited.

“It’s just…I thought…well I hoped that love was something stronger, than, you know…”

The old man smiled. “August, you want to know what love is capable of?”

The boy wiped away a tear with the sleeve of his ragged coat.

“Well,” he said, reaching for his handkerchief, “that all depends on what you believe about love.”

5 Albums That Changed Everything

Recently, I was sharing with some students a couple of books that really affected me. Somehow in my mind, this led me to thinking about a recent article I had read about the Counting Crows’ 1994 album, August and Everything After. So, I’ve decided to write a brief introduction to five albums that changed my life.

#5 – “Weird Al” Yankovic’s TV Album (Released 1995; Purchased 1996)

I know this one may seem strange, but this album legitimately changed my life. It was one of the first two CDs I ever bought, and it cemented my admiration for Weird Al. Combining classic songs with hilarious TV concepts taught me the value of television: there isn’t any really. I don’t know if that Al’s goal, but the momentary nature of the shows me ridiculed showed me at the tender age of 12 that television isn’t as important as I thought it was at that age. Oddly enough, this album got me outside. I’d take this CD and listen to it as I walked around my parents’ property. While I’ll always appreciate Al’s irreverence for all things pop culture, this album had a much deeper impact on me than just a simple joke.

#4 – The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down the Horse (Released 1996; Purchased 1996)

This follow up album was the second CD I ever purchased (this and The TV Album were purchased at the same time, so it’s hard to tell which actually came first). I initially bought it for one simple reason: my dad recommended it to me. It was the first time I remember him suggesting music for me to listen to, so I bought it without thinking twice. Turns out, my dad was right. To this day, there is still something hauntingly beautiful about the record. Jakob Dylan’s lyrics feel like a summation of all things 90s: broken people singing beautiful music about a broken but beautiful world. While I am sure people connect differently, emotionally speaking, to different music, this was another first for me: music that moved my heart outside of the church. This album became a regular throughout my life, and as it turns out, the lives of many of my friends. It is abstract in content all while feeling so incredibly concrete in emotions. The Wallflowers changed how I looked at music, and how I thought about the spiritual side of music making in general. “Josephine” stills makes my eyes watery, some 17 years later. I’ve purchased three copies of this over the years, as my old copies have either worn out or been “borrowed” by friends.

#3 – Rend Collective Experiment’s Campfire (Released 2013; Purchased 2013)

While still very new in the grand scheme of things, this wonderful little record has already made a huge impact on me. Not only has it reinvigorated my praise life, but it stoked so many neat thoughts and conversations. Rend Collective has a philosophy about praise music that is unlike anything I have ever encountered before, which is both refreshing and challenging. They breathe new life into old hymns without becoming another cliché. They invoke such powerful images with songs like “You Bled” and “The Cost” that I am overwhelmed at times just listening to these people love God through their art. It’s a powerful experience. Other individual songs have struck me like this before, but never an entire album (much less a band’s worldview). This is the only album I’ve ever bought digitally that I also wanted to own a physical copy of as well. It’s that good.

#2 – Mindy Smith’s One Moment More (Released 2004; Purchased 2005)

The only female singer to ever really capture my affection, Mindy Smith’s music has some of the hauntingly beautiful sounds that I loved about the Wallflowers, but she tends to focus more on the beauty side of things. Initially drawn in by her cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” tracks like “Come to Jesus” and “Fighting For It All” are utterly enrapturing. She is Odysseus’ siren come to life, only rather than leading you to your doom, she points you firmly towards the shore, reminding you to never let a moment escape like a wasted breath. I know it’s chauvinistic, but she was the first woman singer whom I ever loved. I recommended her music to everyone, and subjected my passengers to her CD on repeat. Smith highlighted the inconsistencies in my own perspective, in a number of ways, and did so in such a gentle way that I all I could ever do was nod and say, “you’re right.” I can’t say there are a lot of albums I’ve ever spoken to before (or since) as if they were alive. But that’s what it felt like listening to her; it was as if she was in the room with me.

#1 – The Counting Crows’ Hard Candy (Released 2002; Purchased 2003)

If I had to do a top five favorite albums, all of them would be Crows’ albums. August and Everything After is my most cherished of their work, but it didn’t change my life. Hard Candy on the other hand, had a profound impact. On certain Sundays in November, when the weather bothers me, I can put this CD on and instantly be transported to a time and place where things worked differently. This was the album my friend James introduced me to; the album that led me to my first Counting Crows concert; the album that walked me through my first real heartache. It didn’t just soothe me at a time when things could be up one second, and down the next; Hard Candy reminded me that there was something more. I discovered this CD in the Rockies, where I met Jesus for the first time as more than the guy who paid for my sins. This album always reminds me that I have a friend in Jesus. I guess maybe some hymns should have that effect, but they don’t. “Butterfly in Reverse” and “Up All Night” instantly bring Scripture to mind that I learned while studying at Ravencrest. I know that it sounds so odd. Still, somehow, this album brought me closer to God than any old time spiritual ever did.

The Bright Knight Rises (Or, Why I’m Not A Libertarian)

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None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I have posted previously about what makes The Dark Knight Rises such a brilliant film, and this chart kind of summarizes my previous point about the thematic elements in each film. Some others have contributed to this discussion (like this guy and this one), and so far I’ve been enjoying the diverse discussion happening around this film. I’d like to continue my thoughts a bit, particularly in relation to a question I was asked recently: “aren’t you a libertarian?”

The question itself is interesting. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Libertarianism…is the moral view that agents initially fully own themselves and have certain moral powers to acquire property rights in external things.” Both the positive and negative aspects of this are showcased in the Batman Trilogy (and Jordan Ballor has sort of hit on this in his article), but the third film really explores this concept. Bane sets the people free, but they are in actuality shackled by this liberating madman. Which brings me to my chief concern with Nolan’s artistic visions: mankind is not the solution.

I think the themes of truth and hope that arc throughout the three films are beautiful, and both have echoes of God. But they do ultimately fall short, and where it all falls apart in my mind is the notion of liberty seen in the films. The League of Shadows and the Joker see people as inherently evil, easy to control and incredibly selfish. Batman, of course, argues the exact opposite by inspiring people through his example and reminding people that they can stand up for themselves. The only problem is that this doesn’t play out in reality (I know it’s a movie, but it’s a movie striving for realism so I think the application sticks).

Libertarianism puts all its eggs in the “free people will self-govern” concept. Except it doesn’t take into account the Fall of Humanity and the impact of sin on human choices. Bane seems to understand this, but he takes it too far assuming that the people will all give into their sin natures. When this doesn’t happen, Batman capitalizes on the good and overthrows Bane’s evil plot. This is a residual leftover of being created in God’s image, which is why this goodness rises out of the darkness in Nolan’s movie. But I don’t think this completely pans out.

I totally get what Paul means when he says that liberty abounds wherever God’s Spirit is, but that’s the point! Libertarianism doesn’t work if God’s Spirit isn’t present. And, in Nolan’s films, the Spirit is not present. I genuinely believe that the only successful form of government is a theocracy, a top down affair where God is the head. Until that happens though, I do think Libertarianism is the best hope for Christians in our present world, but it only works in a unified community that is governed by the Holy Spirit. In the United States specifically, this is problematic because without the proper Truth serving as the foundation of a group of people, deception becomes the order of the day and hope gets buried under the chaotic fear-mongering of the few. I can’t be a libertarian because I don’t have confidence in others to use their liberty wisely.

That may sound elitist, or heretical, or whatever. But it’s the only thing I know. I think Nolan moves towards this in The Dark Knight Rises, even if his conclusion is different.

A Dark Knight? Or A Bright Hope?

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In light of recent events, I hesitate to write about Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in the Dark Knight Trilogy. I by no means desire to trivialize the tragic loss of life that took place in Aurora. Nor do I wish to politicize something for my own ends. There is a better way to approach this whole thing, and its not being kept a secret. But I’m not interested in rehashing something someone else said (better than I could have, at that). Rather, I’d like to briefly explain why The Dark Knight Rises is easily my favorite movie now, and why that matters.

I’ll avoid serious spoilers of this latest film, but I have to revisit Nolan’s previous installments to show you the bigger picture. Read with caution though, minor spoilers will be necessary throughout.

Each of Nolan’s films has a theme. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear. In The Dark Knight, the theme is chaos. What both films thematically have in common is their treatment of truth, which is arguably the underlying theme of the entire trilogy.

To summarize, Batman Begins treats truth as malleable, especially in light of the positive and negative effects of fear upon the human condition. Think of Batman’s use of theatricality and deception. He deceives to help, and in the process alienates those closest to him (starting with Rachel Dawes, and slowly doing the same to Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth by the end of everything). His deception is seen as a necessity by all, but understood to be temporary. Of course, this changes dramatically with the entrance of the Joker in The Dark Knight, as chaos turns this deception on its head and exposes the ugliness inside of people. It would seem, at the close of the second film, that for every time trust and hope are rewarded, they are also overwhelmed by the continued need for deception instead of truth. Nolan paints this ominous picture so well that the closing lines of film sound so true that we forget what is happening:

Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough, sometimes people deserve more. Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.

Despite knowing that something is wrong with this idea, you buy into it because the fear and the chaos have simply overwhelmed you. What other recourse is there?

But in reality, this is a setup. Every bit of it. Because, the truth is this: fear and chaos cannot rule. Humanity, as Nolan demonstrates, needs to have hope. Which is where the third film turns everything around. Hope is the theme of The Dark Knight Rises, and for the first time in Gotham City, truth is the vehicle of that hope.

For whatever short comings you may find in the film, like Batman not being enough of a “detective,” or whatever, I urge you not to miss the point of this film. What sets this movie apart from every superhero film before it (and probably after it) is its message. Even in the face of tragedy, there must be hope. While Bane would use that to destroy, turning ordinary individuals’ hope into a weapon of violence and selfishness, Batman and his friends will have no part of it.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make? “Its just a movie,” you might say. “It doesn’t change the real life tragedy that is overshadowing this weekend.” I disagree. And so does Paul:

Since we have been acquitted and made right through faith, we are able to experience true and lasting peace with God through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King. Jesus leads us into a place of radical grace where we are able to celebrate the hope of experiencing God’s glory. And that’s not all. We also celebrate in seasons of suffering because we know that when we suffer we develop endurance, which shapes our characters. When our characters are refined, we learn what it means to hope and anticipate God’s goodness. And hope will never fail to satisfy our deepest need because the Holy Spirit that was given to us has flooded our hearts with God’s love. – Romans 5:1-5

I’m not saying Nolan intentionally represented the Christian concept of hope in his comic book movie (he may have, I ultimately don’t know). But accidentally or not, its there. I cannot think of the movie from last night without hearing Paul’s words echo in my ears, reminding me that all Truth is God’s Truth, and as such it is not malleable nor deceptive. It is pure and righteous, as I believe the actions of the heroes in this film are as well. The Gospel is imbedded in this movie. For what greater hope is there than the resurrection of Christ?

You’re welcome to take issue with my interpretation. It doesn’t bother me. I simply ask that you think about it. Consider what I’ve suggested as the foundation of this film and ask yourself, “could this be true?” Then you too might find yourself on the path to rise out of the darkness.

Early Christmas

I just can’t articulate enough how much I am looking forward to this movie. One day I’ll blog about how Nolan has redefined movies in way totally unique in a culture where blockbuster = sensory overload and terrible writing (see Transformers 2). Nolan refuses to insult his art like that.

But instead, I’m just going say this: watch the trailer.

The Dark Knight trilogy oozes with the need for Christ. But more on that later.

Peace is coming, indeed

Peace Is Coming (McNoughton)

This painting is called “Peace Is Coming” and you can read more about it here and here. The artist was inspired by Isaiah 2:4,

And He will judge between the nations, And will render decisions for many peoples; And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, And never again will they learn war.

McNaughton has some strong opinions which he expresses through his art. I don’t agree with everything he opines, but this picture gives me a lot to think about.

Libya. Egypt. Iran. Iraq. Afghanistan. Tunisia. And all of these places have seen violence and war just recently. Only going back the last 30 years adds Vietnam, Somalia, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic, and many more.

I guess my thought is that everyone experiences war. People fight over what they believe, whether those beliefs are religious or political or societal. People fight because they think they’re serving something. And while some people hold firmly to the idea that violence is never the answer, there is always a dissenting opinion.

I don’t know how to decide which wars to get involved in, or which atrocities to try and stop. But this picture, regardless of motive or inaccuracy, reminds me that there is something so wonderful to hope for. It reminds me that more and more, Jesus is the only answer for this world, for my community, for my family, for me.

Lines 97-128

Whose but his own? ingrate, he had of mee

All he could have; I made him just and right,

Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.

Such I created all th’ Ethereal Powers

And Spirits, both them who stood and them who fail’d;

Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.

Not free, what proof could they have giv’n sincere

Of true allegiance, constant Faith or Love,

Where only what they needs must do, appear’d,

Not what they would? what praise could they receive?

What pleasure I from such obedience paid,

When Will and Reason (Reason also is choice)

Useless and vain, of freedom both despoil’d,

Made passive both, had served necessity,

Not mee. They therefore as to right belong’d,

So were created, nor can justly accuse

Thir maker, or thir making, or thir Fate;

As if Predestination over-rul’d

Thir will, dispos’d by absolute Decree

Or high foreknowledge; they themselves decreed

Thir own revolt, not I; if I foreknew

Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault,

Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknown.

So without least impulse or shadow of Fate,

Or aught by me immutable foreseen,

They trespass, Authors to themselves in all

Both what they judge and what they choose; for so

I form’d them free, and free they must remain,

Till they enthrall themselves: I else must change

Thir nature, and revoke the high Decree

Unchangeable, Eternal, which ordain’d

Thir freedom: they themselves ordain’d thir fall.

[John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III, Lines 97-128]

I sat in my class today and listened while my professor read those lines out loud. Although her goal was to illustrate Milton’s dislike of Calvinism, something else captivated me.

Milton’s expression in those lines moved me emotionally, they way poetry should. I felt the weight of our rejected Maker; the burden of my choice to rebel.

But seeing a leak in the plumbing is not enough. The leak, the rebellion, needs to be fixed.

A friend of mine was recently worried because she felt like school was pushing her away from God. She spent so much time reading Chaucer and Boethius, she neglected to read her Bible. I’m in no way advocating abandoning the Word, but I do wonder if God does not reach out to us through other literature?

I don’t have a concrete answer to that question. How does someone argue with a belief that God speaks through different means?

I do hope though that all of us, made "Sufficient to have stood," find a way to survive our "freedom to fall."